I’ve heard a lot of speakers talk about leadership. Often their core message is difficult to decipher and even harder to remember. There was one speech I heard a couple of years ago however that I've never forgotten, simply because it contained the unbelievably powerful phrase “funerals are required but weddings are optional”. It means that as a leader your People need you in the bad times but not really when things are going well. This phrase gives me a simple way to explain a belief that is core to my understanding of what I’m to do as a manager, and what the company I lead is to do when the choices are laid out in a policy.
I was asked recently in a 1-2-1 about my worst ever day at work. I knew the answer immediately but it wasn’t something that I’d ever drop casually into a conversation. I asked the person if they really wanted to know. They said they did.
I remember the beautiful sunny July summer day just about 20 years ago when I was working at MBNA in Newark. My first real job after spending too long at university. I got a call and I recognised the number on the phone was my mother. It was her birthday and I’d already talked to her a few hours earlier so I naturally wondered what she wanted so soon after. I picked up and she said a few words that would change my life forever. I know now that she was probably in shock but I didn’t know it at the time. She simply said “Jes was in a car accident and he’s dead.” Jes was my 17 year old brother.
That news isn’t something you can accept easily so I suggested maybe she was wrong and he may just be very injured. Mom said that wasn’t the case as she had just viewed his body at the hospital. I hung up and my head was spinning. I felt dizzy and ill. I wasn’t able to form sentences properly. No tears at that moment as it wasn’t real yet, they would come in buckets later. Our office was small so my conversation had been overheard by a handful of my colleagues. They consoled me as best they could and then offered to give me a ride to the hospital to join my family who were gathering. The next few days were a blur but we pulled together as a family and just got through it as best we could. We’d never be the same but life does somehow go on.
I mention this story today because it is a very personal lesson and real example of the title phrase of this article. Through the lens of time I now realise my bosses were amazing. I had a lot of them as I was the bottom guy on the ladder. They made sure I knew that my family was my job from that moment, and in particular my mother. They told me to take as much time as I wanted off and meant it. I’m the type who needed to get back to work but I did take a lot of time to be with my family when the moment required. The flexibility and trust was absolute. MBNA provided some limos for the funeral and paid for the meal at the service afterwards. I was not “important” at the time and was new but they made a real effort. I was just a kid beginning his career and this had a big impact on me.
I’m from small town America so the funeral always comes with a viewing. When someone young dies the crowds are almost overwhelming and standing there greeting hundreds of People as they file past is exhausting yet cathartic. I can still remember my little Gran exclaiming “look at this” as a group of about 20 from my office came into view. They had taken off work that day en mass and driven the hour to my hometown. Small town funerals are a mix of attire with everyone normally just wearing the best outfit they can find. My gran was so impressed by the group of bankers, their dark suits and “silk ties” as she told me later reliving the moment many times over. They had given me financial support, emotional support, and at the most difficult moment they even gave a physical show of support.
I knew then the type of company I wanted to work in and type of leader that I wanted to be, maybe not consciously but in my heart and deep in my soul. We have a lot of tough personal situations that come up when you have thousands of People working together in a company. Stuff just happens, it's the law of averages. People get sick, their house burns down, their loved ones get sick, they get sick or god forbid someone they love dies too early. I get emails often from my friend John Greaves that begin with “I know what you will want to do but just so you know the situation . . ."
You can’t write a policy to cover decisions like these but you can remember that funerals are required and weddings are optional.
Author's note: I've had a few People from work message me about my 15 year old daughter Jes and ask if she is named after my brother. She is in fact named after him. And while I don't know if it is me just wanting to, I do see a lot of him in her. She is smart but not nerdy. She is also so curious about life and loves to try new things. She is hardworking like him. She is athletic without being obsessed with teams and awards. But the thing that clinches it for me is that she's very funny like my Jes, who was always the life of the party. She is approaching the age when he left us which has caused me to reflect more than a few times on what he'd be like if he were here. That is something you just can't imagine but when I do think of him now I always smile - which isn't as good as having him here but I think is the best I can hope for.